How Crisis Communicators Rely on Social Media

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

A mobile application allows Entergy users to get updates on where power outages are occurring and the estimated time for when those utilities should be restored.

Trips out to the car became a valuable part of the days Reagan Taylor spent at his in-laws’ house during the 2012 winter power outage.

Taylor and his family were without power to their Malvern home for nearly a week in December. And like most folks who have had to rely on friends or family for a place to stay during an extended period, finding some personal space was a welcome experience.

Perhaps even more critical to Taylor, he said, was that the car provided a spot to keep his phone charged. Like thousands of Arkansans, Taylor relied on the Internet, social media in particular, to stay updated on the progress Entergy Arkansas crews were making in restoring power to more than 190,000 customers.

Knowing how things were going in the field helped some impacted citizens like Taylor make the best of a difficult situation.

“It didn’t help get the power on any quicker, but knowing they were out there doing what they were doing, you knew they were going as fast as they could to get your power back,” Taylor said. “Not being home wears on you, but I thought they handled it well and did a good job of keeping everybody updated.”

December was Entergy’s first real-time opportunity to use a social media plan it was developing for crisis communications. Twitter and an online media presence became a valuable part of the roughly 200-page storm communications plan that Entergy spokeswoman Julie Munsell and her team followed.

In anticipation of the next significant event that Entergy has to deal with, they are continuing to tweak the plan. That included a round of social media exercises during recent disaster preparedness drills.

Using a smartphone to gather information is becoming a necessity during storms. It’s why Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club division set up power stations at stores in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy hit.

“People needed the ability to connect with loved ones as much as a hot meal,” said Mark Scott, public relations manager for Sam’s Club. Even people who were not members of the wholesale club were allowed inside to power up their phones and computers.

Immediacy has long been seen as a key component of effective crisis communications. The longer you allow limited information, the more at crisis your stakeholders — in these cases, the general public — feel.

That’s why social media has become an important tool. It provides an avenue for nearly real-time delivery. It also allows communicators to speak directly with affected customers.

Chris Lehane, a political consultant, crisis communications expert and co-author of the book “Masters of Disaster,” said communicators would be smart to invest time and resources into how they use social media during times of crisis.



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